The morning of April 11 started with fun and games with participants from Google.org and incarcerated coding students as a way to socialize.
The first game, the circle name game, an icebreaker consisted of everyone yelling out his or her name and that of the person next to them as fast as possible, which was easy to see that the day was going to be relaxed and fun.
Subsequently, the room was broken into groups to play Charades, Game Night and then Family Feud, San Quentin style.
The coding program is the brainchild of venture capitalists Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz.
This husband and wife team had a “crazy idea” after they met some incarcerated men here at San Quentin in 2010, Parenti said. They wanted to create business opportunities by integrating entrepreneurship with social justice – the result: The Last Mile (TLM). “We wanted to start The Last Mile because of the high recidivism rate, and help influence [lowering] that”, said Parenti.
Four years later, they launched the computer-coding program, Code. 7370.
Half the day consisted of games played in groups of individuals separated by personality types, an idea from coder Isaiah Love who said, “I noticed that identifying your personality builds almost immediate commonality and rapport. In other words it fosters an immediate connection.”
The nine groups were separated based on personality types, such as reformers, helpers, achievers, individualists, investigators, loyalists, enthusiasts, challengers, and peace- makers.
The rest of the day, the tech industry and mass incarceration were discussed.
Parenti spoke about a recent luncheon she had with about 15 TLM and Code.7370 graduates who paroled from prison.
“We talked about our success. Now we’re giving Googlers that same experience,” Parenti said. She told the incarcerated men, “There is no reason for you not to come home with these skills and fit in. You have persevered through the hardest of circumstances. You all inspire us to do more.”
Jason Jones spent more than 13 years in prison, the last five in Code.7370.
He returned to San Quentin to say, “If not for The Last Mile, I would not have known what to do with my life.” He then credited Brain Asey as a mentor who advised him to apply for TLM. Jason also said, “I wouldn’t have come to prison if there were programs like this when I was growing up.”
He added, “When you want to influence or impact people, you have to socialize with them,” turning to the incarcerated men he said, “I encourage all of you when you get out to go back to your communities, your hoods, because they need you they want you. When I went back, they saw the change in me and they wanted to follow that lead.”
It was Googler Megan Wheeler’s first experience inside a prison.
“I have not been more impacted in my life,” Wheeler said. “It’s eye opening. I learned a lot from Jason. He pushed us and made us think about why we came here. I feel that I could better explain how the criminal justice system operates because of this experience.” She added.
“Now, I will be more mindful as to how it plays into my everyday life. It pushed me out of my comfort zone.”
Wheeler said that she looks forward to having a conversation with her mother, who works in the juvenile justice system in Arizona, saying “now I have a deeper understanding of her work.”
One of the topics in the group discussion was on “Imposter Syndrome” and of a time that each person felt “othered.”
Googler Justine Steel shared that he felt like an outsider when attending engineering school.
“If you’re feeling othered in tech, you probably need to be there”
“I was in the honors program and was the only one of color in the program,” adding that he, “still feels a lack of connection today at Google.”
Googler Maab Ibrahim said, “If you’re feeling othered in tech, you probably need to be there.”
Nicola Bucci said he “felt looked down on in the past as a blue collar worker in tech… I’m as soft guy who had to put on a front when I first got to prison.”
Harry Hemphill said, “Although prison is a dark place, graduating from the coding program brought me light.” He said that he is ready to go home with confidence and employable skills.
Robert Barnes, who recently finished the final track of the coding program, and is now a teacher’s assistant for the program, said, “It’s a pleasure to be part of Code.7370 I never thought I would be hanging out with Google.org executives. It’s been a blessing just being associated with Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz.”
TLM and Code.7370 graduate Sherman K. Newman said, “It’s a great day to get to know these tech folks. This is a great opportunity for us to connect with society, and it’s great for them to see the people behind these walls and see that we can better ourself.”
Googler Jacquelline Fuller asked the “men-in-blue” what assets they would bring to the tech world.
“We have the resilience to overcome obstacles. We have learned coding without internet access,” Hemphill said. “I have the passion and the willingness to help the next person, because we understand.”
Parenti said, “Offering opportunities to at-risk communities keeps dollars out of prison beds and puts money into schools and helps the youth.”
The conversation shifted to prison reform.
Jones said, “Prison is not a good thing, but having programs like The Last Mile inside prison is good. So, I can’t say abolish prisons, but I wouldn’t punish [prisoners] the way we do. What we can do is provide programs like The Last Mile in the community. I joined a gang at 11 because I was looking for a family.”
Then Parenti said, “Meeting with governors throughout the country, I see a shift in our politics, relating to mass incarceration…The best data are the stories about people coming home after these kinds of programs.”
Gregory Morris said, “When I came to prison at 18 I was vulnerable. The worst was that I could have been raped or killed. The best has been the programs that helped me turn my life around. However, in most prisons people spend most of the time in cells and only have programs like AA/ NA. There are people who will never change, but most of us want to change. So, how we look at prisons has to change so that the people who want to help prisoners change have better access.”
Hemphill said, “Prisons are a result of a bigger problem… money needs to be focused on the educational system. We’ve lost focus and need to re-focus on not a bandage solution to a bigger problem.”
The day was a way for Googlers to get to know the inmate population within San Quentin and see that there are many professional and qualified men in the Code. 7370 program and throughout the prison system that have changed their lives and deserve a second chance in society and within the tech industry.
As Googler Gayatri Divekar said, “I think this population is going to be part of the hiring pool in the Bay Area, [it’s] important to get to know the population that will work at Google or other tech companies [in the future]. Google did not look to bring in this type of people in the past… So it’s good for Google to look to this population and get to know them.”
-Juan Haines of the San Quentin News co-authored this story.